Rabbi Zachary R. Shapiro '97
Senior Rabbi, Temple Akiba of Culver City
Member, Board of Governors and Western Region Board of Advisors
Please tell us about your Jewish journey and what led you to HUC-JIR.
I grew up in the Reform Movement at Temple Israel of Boston, under the leadership of Rabbis Bernard Mehlman and Ronne Freedman. They nurtured my soul, deepened my curiosity, and broadened my perspective at every level. They encouraged me to attend URJ Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute for the summer starting at age 11, where the first creative worship service transformed me forever and made me want to be a rabbi. I came home, taught myself to play guitar, and allowed Jewish music to guide my journey through high school.
As the years continued, a deeper yearning to help society developed. I soon realized that my goal in life was to help bring goodness into the world, and that I was fortunate enough to have the treasures of Judaism to guide me. Rabbis Mehlman and Freedman said to me, “If you want to be a rabbi, don’t major in Jewish studies in college. You’ll learn that at HUC-JIR. Go get a broad, liberal arts education.” So I earned my B.A. in Spanish from Colby College in 1992. Three weeks after graduation, I was on a plane to Israel for my first of five years at HUC-JIR. I don’t come from a line of rabbis; my parents were both professional, my father an entrepreneur and my mother an attorney. But both parents, as well as my older sisters, accompanied me on this life-calling, as they recognized that whenever I spoke about Judaism, my eyes lit up!
How did HUC-JIR prepare you for your career?
Following the first year in Jerusalem, I spent the next four years at the Cincinnati campus. I was honored to serve student pulpits in Ishpeming, MI, Joplin, MO, Great Falls, MT, and Texarkana, TX. I really loved meeting Jewish families who landed in these smaller cities. They trained and guided me, and allowed me to discover my voice. They challenged me to take the stuff (that’s a Talmudic term) I was learning in books and turn them into values for communities. I treasured those experiences, and they continue to inform how I lead and why I serve. I was also fortunate to have the mentorship of luminaries like Rabbi Lewis Kamrass of Wise Temple and Rabbi Mark and Dr. Meryl Goldman, z”l, of Rockdale Temple. They taught me to trust my gut, but also to challenge my limitations. And while I spent most academic learning with theologians, midrashists, educators, and historians, my favorite experiences were with composer Bonia Shur, who exposed rabbinical students to the depth and breadth of incredible Jewish music. I can still hear him calling my name in his thick, Latvian accent: “Zichee!”
How do you stay connected to HUC-JIR?
Since my ordination in 1997, I have served Reform Judaism in the Los Angeles area, first as the Assistant and then Associate Rabbi at University Synagogue, under the mentorship of Rabbis Allen Freehling, z”l, and Morley Feinstein, z”l. I also worked for the regional office of the URJ as the Director of the Introduction to Judaism Program, under the guidance of Rabbi Alan Henkin. Since 2006, I have been the spiritual leader of Temple Akiba of Culver City, following the career of my dear friend, Rabbi Allen Maller. (Yes, lots of Allen’s in my life!) In these 24 years, I have always maintained a close connection to HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. I have mentored students at their pulpits and brought in interns for our congregation, audited courses with incredible professors, and I have addressed the student body for various classes and functions. I care not only about the voice of our Movement but the voices of our students, and I want them to have the tools to face the challenges, harness the opportunities, and honor the history of Judaism. No institution does this as HUC-JIR does.
What made you want to serve on the Board of Governors (BOG)?
My father, Dennis Shapiro, z”l, served on the Board of Governors many years ago. I so appreciate his dedication to ensuring a meaningful experience for students. I want to continue and expand that legacy. As a newer member of the BOG, I feel so privileged to have access to some of the best and brightest minds in the world. I hope to help make HUC-JIR’s brand more recognizable and help make HUC’s presence more meaningful to the Jewish world.
Would you like to share anything else?
I am the lucky husband of Ron Galperin, Los Angeles City Controller. We are the proud dads of 21-month-old twins, Maya Ruth and Eli Noah Shapiro-Galperin.